By Rev. Marcus Zill
Language and faith always go hand in hand. Songwriters and poets have always sought to capture the essence of the Christian faith. Having dabbled in poetry myself, I have an appreciation for those who are actually skilled at the craft.
You would probably be thrilled to find out that when you were born, your dad made up a poem in honor of the occasion. But what if the point of it had more to do with your cousin who wasn’t even born yet? Well, that’s basically what happened with John the Baptist (we celebrate his Nativity on June 24). When John was born, his dad, Zacharias, composed such a piece but it turns out that most of it was about Jesus.
Of course, this makes total sense, as the supreme purpose in John’s life was precisely to point people to Jesus. His ministry was with his finger! John once said of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Ultimately, everything about John, beginning at his birth, found its meaning in relation to Jesus— including his name.
In many families, it is customary to name the firstborn son after his father or grandfather and to name the other children after other relatives—at least their middle name. My first name, Marcus, was my dad’s first name. While it’s just a custom and there’s nothing wrong with disregarding it (I went by my middle name Todd growing up and was called Toddzilla by my peers in my youth!) the custom does express the hope that the qualities about one’s father or other relatives will be carried on by their descendants.
In ancient times, this custom was followed much more frequently than today. It wasn’t an option. It was expected. But Luke tells us that something different happened with the naming of John. In fact, it was so different that the other relatives and friends protested. “There’s nobody in the family by that name!” “Nobody in the family has ever borne the name of John.” “Why don’t you call him Zacharias, like his father?”
The fact that Zacharias and Elizabeth have a child at all was a miracle. They had every reason to name him Zacharias. But they don’t. Instead they give him a name which indicates who he is in God’s sight and what he has come to do. And so Zacharias, who had been kept until that moment from speaking because of his lack of faith in the promise, proudly announces, “His name is John.” Words have meaning and here language and faith go together perfectly. John means, “The Lord is gracious,” and the grace of God is precisely the message that John will preach, namely through repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Zacharias was certainly a proud father. But his excitement was not only in the birth of his son, but also in the birth of his, and his son’s, Savior. In the canticle known as the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-80), when Zacharias does get around to talking about John, it’s all in relationship to the coming Christ. He, and He alone, is the point for both father and son. And so Zacharias looks at his newborn son and, led by the Holy Spirit, proclaims: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.”
John’s mission would be to prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming repentance and administering Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He would ultimately point to Christ CRUCIFIED even before Christ’s death. “Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) So it is fitting that even the song surrounding John’s birth also points the world to Christ! It is always, always, about Jesus!
Of course, John was eventually killed for his faithful confession of Christ. Pointing out the sins of others in order to lead them to repentance and pointing the world to Jesus ultimately landed John in prison and led to his death. His wasn’t an easy life, but through it all, “the Lord was gracious” to Him and to you as well!
You, too, will experience hardships and trials in your life, not only because sin still clings to you and you live in a sin-filled world, but also because you bear the name of Christ. Pointing your friends and loved ones to Christ and Him CRUCIFIED will also be met with scorn, and ridicule, and perhaps worse. But when you face those trials and temptations, know that God’s Word still proclaims to you that the end of even these things is eternal life: “The Lord is gracious.”
John’s life, from beginning to end, found its entire meaning in relation to Christ. It is the same for you. Your life has meaning—wonderful, walking, wet meaning—because you are joined to Jesus. You have been baptized into Christ, you are privileged to hear His Words, and even receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
Dear ones, “The Lord is gracious.” That, and only that, is the whole point!
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come and has redeemed his people.”
Rev. Marcus T. Zill just accepted a call to serve the LCMS as the full-time Director of Campus Ministry and LCMS U.